What does it mean to ‘heap burning coals’ upon enemies (Prov. 25:22)?

The phrase is found in the second section of Solomon’s proverbs (Chapters 25-29). Much of Chapter 25 pertains to the social treatment and mistreatment of others through words and deeds. This wise behavior helps create good relationships.

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The pinnacle of Chapter 25 is verse 21, which instructs the wise to provide for their enemies whenever they needed it. Although the lesson appears to be paradoxical, it is echoed throughout the Old Testament. God instructed the Israelites to help their enemies whenever their animals broke loose or fell under a heavy load (Ex. 23:4- 5). They could neither mistreat others nor laugh at their misfortune (cf. Job 31:13-34). The Israelites could not take vengeance on others; instead, God would be the judge (Prov. 24:29; Deut. 32:35). Above all, God reminded them to love their neighbor – any neighbor – as they loved themselves (Lev. 19:18b). In so doing, they became God’s representatives.

If God instructed the wise to be gracious even to their enemies, then the phrase in Proverbs 25:22 is very strange. Did the “burning coals” represent a form of judgment and vengeance upon their enemies? If so, it contradicts all of the good things that they were to do for them. Why would anyone enact kindness simply for the sake of vengeance (cf. Prov. 17:13)?

Perhaps the “burning coals” represented the fiery shame that their enemies felt after their benevolent treatment, which in turn might cause remorse or repentance. The ancient Egyptian sage Amenemope said, “Fill his belly with bread of your own, that he may be sated and weep.” Some scholars have noted various Near Eastern practices where individuals wore coals on their head as a sign of punishment, repentance or healing.

The phrase might also allude to God’s discipline of these adversaries. The Book of Malachi speaks of a time when God would put people into his “refiner’s fire” or “launderer’s soap” when his messenger came (Mal. 3:2-3). Through God’s refining process, the enemy might make a change of heart. Perhaps these kind gestures were the precursor to such an occurrence.

Regardless of the meaning of the phrase in verse 22, it is secondary to the instruction in verse 21 to do good. The New Testament shares the same lesson. Followers of Jesus were never to repay “evil for evil;” instead, they were to love their enemies and pray for them (Matt. 5:43-48). Paul also noted that judgment was God’s concern, yet his love through his followers always outshone his judgment (Rom. 12:17-21).

It is never easy to do good to those who do evil. It takes a radical change of heart to enact love on those who do not deserve it. It is that same kind of love that God has for his children, which radically changed them.

Ken Gore is professor of biblical studies at Dallas Baptist University.

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